Christopher Ondaatje: If I had to start again..

Before I left the world of finance, I'd have said I should have been an explorer. In 1972 I read a book on Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton and realised that this was the life for me. Instead of hacking through the jungles of finance, I should have been hacking through the jungles of east Africa. So in 1988 I said 'screw this' and sold everything, including Pagurian Corporation, which had $1bn of assets. I'd tasted money and power, but I was awfully tired and the markets were bad. So I got off the train. If I'd continued at that pace I might be dead now. But I made a new life in England as a philanthropist, writer and explorer.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I grew up in Ceylon, in quite a privileged family, but got sent to school in England aged 12. That taught me how to survive and make my own decisions. The family went bankrupt after Ceylon's independence in 1948, so I had to leave school. One day, when I was supposed to be playing cricket, I ended up at a talk at the LSE - someone was describing the concept of shares, that you could make money by dealing chunks of companies. I vowed to become an expert.

I spent five years in the City of London. I was worldly for my age, plus I had that spirit of adventure - show me that new world and I'm off. I soon realised the UK was not the place for me, but worked out that Canada hadn't had its boom yet. I'd guessed right. I was there from 1962 to 1987, a period of fantastic growth.

If I had to do it all again I wouldn't have sold up. I think I would have kept control of the company, taken my lumps in the disastrous down markets at the end of the '80s, and adopted today's new investment philosophies. But I don't regret it. I'm 74 now, but feel 10 years younger than I did 10 years ago. This world I've chosen - exploring, writing, philanthropy - has none of the old selfishness. Making money is a lonely business.

Christopher Ondaatje, a former publisher and financier, is now a writer. His latest book, The Power of Paper, is out now from HarperCollins.

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